Collectivism, Individualism, and the Alternative…

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There was nothing more irritating to the middle-school version of me than collective punishment of a class.  It was totally unfair, from the perspective of a well-behaved individual, for the teacher to punish the entire class because of the few who misbehaved and seemed a gross injustice.

However, from a teacher’s perspective, punishing classes as a collective whole was 1) easier than finding the individual culprits and 2) might convince students to police themselves.  And, while it is debatable whether or not this technique accomplishes the desired ends, it is something used in military training and for the purpose of teaching that the collective unit will rise and fall together in a combat situation.

We thrive in groups.  There is a reason why you buy your car from a manufacturer rather than build it yourself and that reason is they can do it more efficiently than you can.  It is something called “comparative advantage” (which basically means that some people are better at doing some tasks than we are) and is one of the reasons why trade is almost always mutually beneficial.  For the most ideal result (for both individuals and the collective) it is usually better that we specialize and cooperate.

In real-life we do depend on each other for survival.   Yes, you might be strong, independent, well-disciplined and as prepared as one can be for a crisis.  However, if your neighbors are not, when a crisis does arise it will likely be you against the group and you will probably lose that fight no matter how prepared you are.  And, at very least, even if you were to somehow escape, you would not thrive as an individual like you do in a developed economy where there is cooperation and trade.

So, whether we like it or not, regardless if it is just or not to introduce artificial group responsibility for the actions of others, even if there was no moral obligation to be our brother’s keeper, there is group accountability that arises naturally because of our interdependence and also an economic argument to make for some collective effort (or collectivism) and denial of the individual.  In other words, we are individually better when we take some concern for other individuals who make up our own collective group.

Where Collectivism Goes Wrong…

In the first part of my life most of my effort has been to fight back against collectivism.  In life, as in the classroom, I was usually well-behaved, worked hard, lived within my means, always paid my own bills on time, and expected others to do the same.  It has always seemed terribly unfair that others would expect me to pick up the tab for their irresponsible lifestyle.

What is worse is that many collectivists are not content to subsidize those who they deem to be deserving of help out of their own pockets and instead support the use of use of government to enforce their ideals—taxes are used for income redistribution and affirmative action laws created in an effort to promote equality of outcomes.  To me that is trying to solve one injustice by means of another injustice.  There is no virtue in forcing other people to give to others against their will.

Furthermore, at some point, forcing a responsible person to subsidize another person’s lifestyle is to punish their behavior and promote irresponsible behavior.  The problem with artificial collective responsibility is that it can remove the incentive for the individual to be responsible for themselves and leads to a downward spiral.

For example, poverty has not been eliminated since the “war on poverty” began in 1964.  In fact, the percentage of single parent homes—one of the significant predictors of poverty—has increased dramatically over the same period.  It is often very difficult, for those already in the welfare system, to escape their dependence when the benefits of not working are almost equal to the income they could earn otherwise.

And then there is this awful thing called “identity politics” where people are put into competitive groups according to their race, gender or economic status and then pitted against each other.  Basically the idea is to promote conflict (rather than cooperation) between various identity groups.  People, according to this kind of thinking, should be judged as a part of their collective groups rather than as individuals and unique.

What identity politics amounts to, in practical terms, is that there are those who are collectively punished for the sins of their collective identity (past or present) and then those who, as a collective group, are deemed to be victims and therefore entitled to a protected status.  Identity politics is to blame for terms like “white privilege” and also for the resurgence of white nationalism.  It should be no surprise to anyone that those who are collectively punished will, in turn, circle the wagons and start to collectively protect their own identity group.

Teachers who punish the whole class for the actions of a few individuals assume that the group will push back against those who misbehave.  Unfortunately, it could also promote the opposite and cause the well-behaved students to give up and even join in the misbehavior because they will be punished regardless.  Likewise, when labels like “racist” or “sexist” are applied to an entire identity group they often become counterproductive.  People who are categorizing and castigated as a group regardless of their individual role might as well misbehave a little.

Collectivism ultimately fails when it is disrespectful of individual rights and disregarding of differences between individuals.  The potential for abuse is severe when it is the collective group versus some individuals or even when collective groups fights against other groups.  It is what leads to pogroms and purges.  Collectivism is extremely dangerous ideology when it becomes an excuse to privilege some ethnic, national, racial, religious, social or political groups at the expense of others.

Where Individualism Goes Wrong…

Individualism, to many people, seems like the perfect alternative to collectivism.  It is part of the ideological DNA of the United States of America.  Truly one of the things that made America great was the special consideration for the individual and their “inalienable” rights.

These rights, purportedly “endowed by our creator” according the nation’s founding documents, have been enshrined into law and a government system designed as a bulwark against abuse of individuals.  Progress, at least in American terms, has been a matter of extending the umbrella of these individual rights to those previously disenfranchised and considered less than equal because of their gender, racial or ethnic group.  While we can never agree on the particulars, the general idea that “all men are created equal” and have rights to “Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness” is something most do agree on.

Respect for individual rights has made this nation great because it freed individuals to do what they wanted to do.  Yes, the nation was imperfect in it’s founding and remains imperfect.  However, the American ideal seems to be right in many regards, it is something that likely contributed to the current prosperity this nation and is something that has likely helped to shape a better world.  It is hard to imagine the world being better under the totalitarianism represented by men like Stalin, Hitler and other dictators claiming to represent a collective good.

Unfortunately, respect for the individual turns into a bad thing when it becomes individualism.  It is true that many are able to provide food, clothing and shelter for themselves as an individual.  However, nobody can provide for their own social needs and many in the world today are socially starved.  The problem is particularly acute in the developed world where people are materially prosperous and can live under a delusion of their independence.  But the truth is that it is not healthy for most people to be free from meaningful human connections or to have no purpose bigger than themselves.

The deficiencies of individualistic American culture have became clearer to me after I left home.  Being single, out on the road, a completely free individual, often made me feel profoundly lonely and unfulfilled.  I felt imprisoned in my own mind.  My siblings had their own lives, my friends all seemed to marry then disappear, the local church was unable/unwilling to pick up the slack, and depression set in.   No man is an island—positive social interactions and having a place to belong is what keeps us sane.

My recent trip to the Philippines punctuated this point.  The people there generally have less material wealth than their American counterparts.  As a result people depend on each other—family members expected to provide for each other, children help their parents, and is more or less an organic form of collectivism.  I felt happier there, as one participating in family activities, than I did with all the possessions and properties I’ve aquired over the past few decades.

As if to provide contrast, on my way way back from the Philippines I was put up in a Marriott (when my flight to JFK was diverted to Atlanta because of weather) and was basically alone despite being one of the hundred passengers and crew in the motel.  My accommodations were luxurious, my stomach full of quality grub courtesy of Korean Air food vouchers, my unlimited data plan connected me back to social media and all the entertainment in the world, and still it felt like a time devoid of purpose.

People do not need to be a part of an identity group.  However, we do seem to find our own identity in our interactions with other people and within a group.  Solitude, while therapeutic and a chance for reflection as a choice, is a punishment when imposed upon us by circumstances beyond our control.  Individualism, at an extreme, results in solipsism and anti-social behavior—it is easy to imagine that the world is against you when too disconnected from other people.

Where Community Gets it Right…

“Community is a sign that love is possible in a materialistic world where people so often either ignore or fight each other. It is a sign that we don’t need a lot of money to be happy–in fact, the opposite.” (Jean Vanier)

Community can mean many things.  However, the word itself is a fusion of “common” with “unity” and most often describes a group individuals with a shared identity or interest.  In this context community is a collection of individuals who love and take an active role in each other’s lives.

I believe community is something that transcends the ideological extremes (and false dichotomy) of individualism and collectivism.  It is not a balance or tension between individual rights and the collective needs of a group.  It is rather a fusion of individual and collective concerns that is not a product of coercion or imposed as a legal obligation.  It is a place where differences become a strength rather than a point of contention and were grievances are addressed without becoming the group’s central theme.

A healthy community is focused on the highest common denominator of the group rather than on the lowest.  In other words, the goals of the individuals in the group are bigger than what is merely good for them or those who are most like them.  Those who make up the group are not forced to give up their personal autonomy to tyrannical collective process either.  Instead they are free to voluntarily use their individual strengths to the betterment of the group, willing to work towards the goal they share in common with the group, and without their personal needs being neglected.

Community is a Christian ideal.  It is centered on sharing an identity with Jesus and is following after his example.  It means being willing to suffer temporary personal loss for the external good of others.  It means loving social outcasts, reaching out to those marginalized in society and being a helping hand to those in need.  It means having an identity (both individually and collectively) greater than race, gender, economic status, nation, or religious affiliation.  It means a community formed by all those (past, present and future) united in a mystical common-union:

“Here there is no Gentile or Jew, circumcised or uncircumcised, barbarian, Scythian, slave or free, but Christ is all, and is in all.  Therefore, as God’s chosen people, holy and dearly loved, clothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness and patience. Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. And over all these virtues put on love, which binds them all together in perfect unity. “ (Colossians 3:11‭-‬14 NIV)

Community is where individuals take responsibility for the collective group and the collective group takes responsibility for the individual.  Not because they have to, not because they fear punishment, but because they want to, they have an identity bigger than themselves and love each other as Jesus first loved them.

Nuclear Fusion and a Positive Vision of Love

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Many people, whether they realize it or not, love for what they get in return and essentially are in love with their own image reflected in another person.  This can be dressed up in many ways, it can be hidden under religious motives or romanticized, but it is (once all the layers of rationalizations are removed) a selfish love.

For three years now I’ve sought after a different kind of love.  For three years I’ve sought after the kind of love that sacrificed personal ambitions and loved another purely out of love for God.  It was a love of faith, a love that transcends differences rather than be divided by them, and a love made possible only through God.

The impossible love meets human reality…

I set out to do the impossible in belief that the words “with God all things are possible” were true and pursued the love of someone who was completely different from me in everything but faith.

Unfortunately, this person—being that they are fundamentally different from me (despite our both being Mennonites)—did not see faith as a good enough basis and could not see the potential for love and refused even a friendly relationship.

I don’t blame her.  It was what she inherited from her parents and religious culture.  Mennonites, despite their bluster, are really no different from their secular neighbors and promote the same perspective of love.  That is to say Mennonites give advice like “find someone running the same direction you are” and centers on the wants of the two individuals.  You don’t need God to explain that kind of love.

But I sought something entirely different.  I sought a love that was not self-seeking and shallow.  I was seeking a deeper bond of a love that was truly self-sacrificial and put God at the center rather than the wants of individuals.  Instead of two people choosing each other because they are similar, a narcissistic love, I hoped to find the love of two people who formed their ambitions together in a spiritual union with God.

I met a wall of resistance.  Mennonites may claim to love their enemies and practice non-resistance, but don’t try to be their friend unless you fit their list of requirements.  I was not up to her standards.  She told me she couldn’t love me the way that I wished to be loved, except I didn’t ask for love—all I wanted was a little faith and a chance.

Imagine the exasperation of being told “hearts don’t change” by someone who plans to commit their life to missionary service.  It makes me wonder why they would even bother going over land and sea?  Evidently they aren’t going with actual faith in a God that makes the impossible possible.  Perhaps they are going for the excitement or for the praise of religious peers?

Anyhow, it is impossible to love someone who refuses to receive it.  In her mind, as one who was “thirty years old living in Milton” I had absolutely nothing to offer her.  She, taking cues from her father and religious peers, treated me more like a rabid dog than a brother in faith.  They actually denied me a means to love or be needed by them.

Meet Sarah, my sister from Congo-Brazzaville…

Severe disappointment leads to depression and many days I wished that I could disappear into my bed forever.  I was hurting and not in the mood to be sociable when the notification “Sarah Zinia has sent you a friend request” popped up on Facebook.

My initial thought was to ignore it.

However, I decided not to use my own pain as an excuse.  I remembered, “Do unto others as you would have them do to you,” and decided to apply that reasoning to this circumstance.

I clicked “accept” not knowing what to expect.

I was not kept in suspense.

Immediately thereafter a message “hey” came from this mysterious new friend.  So, still fighting the urge to ignore and deciding to apply the Golden Rule again, I said “hey” in reply.  We exchanged our “how are you’s” and that marked the beginning of a very special friendship between two very different people.

Sarah, I would soon learn, was in dead end of a town, living in a group home, a mother to a one month old baby Anthony, and had no car or public transportation.  It was obvious she was very bored, and I knew that if I were in her shoes I would want to get out a little.  So, in a moment of impulse, I offered to take her somewhere and she enthusiastically accepted.

After a first meeting (and being a good Mennonite by too carefully explaining my platonic intent) we were regularly going out to eat, hiking trails, visiting parks and even shopping!  She didn’t seem to care that I was a mildly miserable guy in his mid-thirties, she was simply glad to have a friend.

Our conversations were light at first, usually about the food we ate or the weather, but soon I was learning about the struggles of a teenage single mother and life from the perspective of a refugee from Africa.  Her story touched my heart and made my life seem like a walk in the park by comparison.

Sarah was pulled away from her home country, taken from her mother (who she has lost all contact with) in a new strange country, raised by the state system, treated as a slave and bullied.  I can’t go into details out of respect for her privacy and yet can assure you that she has gone through many awful experiences in her life.

Mennonites, like many others who are so privileged, take for granted the security that a family provides for them.  Sarah, by contrast, has been separated from her family and has been a half step from homelessness.  Yeah, sure, there are many government programs and private organizations to help, but none of that can replace family.  She needed real family and that is why she decided to accept me as her brother from another mother.

I treated her with respect.  She did not need to ask, it was easy to recognize the void in her life and that she needed someone she could trust to be there for her no matter what.  I tried to help her with her insecurities by assuring her that she would have a place to live even if I needed to give her my home and move back to my parent’s house.  

The friendship we have is impossible by a conservative Mennonite standard.  I’ve had various people in the church express their ‘concern’ to me.  Apparently, in their minds, a guy and girl can’t spend time together without bad things happening?  And then there were those who advised me to practice some ‘tough love’ and cut her off when she went against my advice and moved back to Arizona.

But I stopped caring what other people thought.  I trusted my heart and knew my intentions were right.  Sarah might be a net loss for my bank account, I’ve had to answer those late night calls, tune out a screaming baby (who had been perfectly delightful until alone with us in the car) and yet it was well worth it.  The moments of laughter, the happy and sad tears, seeing her progress—priceless.

She made my life meaningful again.  I probably needed her as much or more than she needed me.  She gave me a reason to care enough to get out of bed and her success has become my own.  Witnessing her accomplishments over the past couple years has encouraged me not to lose hope because the odds are against me.

Sarah has a positive outlook despite all the evil she’s endured—she still smiles with a big goofy grin and that brightens my day…

Helping my little lost sheep find God’s love again…

Last year I met another dear soul through social media.  I will never forget the first message where she apologized because she felt unworthy to be my friend.  She was a poor little lost sheep, shivering in the cold dark world, a nameless number to the machinery of capitalism, and had lost all hope.

Her family and her young son were far away in the Philippines.  She was working to support her son, and (because the wage was a little better than in her home country) she was pressured to take a three year contract in an electronics factory in Tiawan.  She lived in a dormitory with strangers.  Her life had fallen apart.

After her first message my heart ached with compassion.  I tried to convince her that she was indeed worthy to be my friend and assured that I would be there for her as long as she needed me.  But her descent from dreams of a simple happy life to the pit of despair was not overnight and restoration of hope would also take time.

Despite being on complete opposite ends of the planet (exactly twelve hours apart) we had the same schedule because she was on night shift.  So it worked out that every day she could be the first person I would greet and the last one I would talk to before going to bed.

There were many times early on where she would come away from work forlorn.  I would see the sad puppy sticker come across on Messenger and that was my signal to put everything down to get to the bottom of what was troubling her.  My mission was not accomplished until she smiled.

One day she asked me if it was okay if she called me “bhest” and, not seeing a reason why not, I granted permission.  Since then I’ve been her bhest and tried to live up to that special distinction.  My bhest has looked to me for assurance, for forgiveness when she made mistakes, and has privileged me with her faithful companionship.

The sad puppy sticker has not made an appearance for quite some time now.  Our daily reminders to each other to smile and be happy seem to create a sort of synergy or positive feedback loop.  It seems that we get more out than we put in.  We might be on complete opposite ends of the globe, but somehow we are twins and share one heart.

She has transformed from a sad puppy to a bouncy dancing and happy puppy—that is a great source of happiness for me.  It is my goal to continue to provide her with hope of that simple and happy life as long as I am able.

And, for the first time in my life, following her lead, I’ve started to call someone “bhest” and that makes me smile…

Anyhow, what does nuclear fusion have in common with a sister, a sheep, and the love I seek?

Nuclear fusion is a process in which two (or more) different atoms are pushed together with enough force that they overcome the forces that would normally keep them apart and they become one.  The result is a release of energy and particles.  Nuclear fusion is the process occuring in stars (like our sun) that continuously converts hydrogen atoms into helium and creates light.

There is research underway to replicate the conditions necessary for nuclear fusion to occur.  The reason for the effort is the tremendous potential for nuclear fusion to be a renewable and clean energy source.  Once the reaction was started (using a tremendous amount of energy) it would create far more energy than was used to start it and solve many problems of how to power our future.

My vision is for a love like nuclear fusion.  A love that takes two very different people who are not naturally attracted and bonds them together through a faith greater than the differences.  The idea would be a composite of two people of like faith with normally incompatible strengths and ambitions who are held together through a supernatural love.

That is why I set out a few years ago praying for the impossible to be made possible.  It was my hope to see this fusion of very different people who transcended their own independent dreams, sacrifice themselves completely (rather than find someone like themselves) and became bonded in a faith greater than themselves.  I had a vision of a tremendous potential yield.

And, I suppose, I may have gotten part way there.  I’ve seen people as different as black and white become family.  I’ve also found a love that can literally reach around the globe, and bridge east to west.  I’ve seen relationships that produce a synergy and seemingly more output than the energy put in.

But what remains to be seen and impossible?

I have yet to see a good Mennonite from the in-group make a commitment of love to someone outside their exclusive club.  Yes, I’ve seen them love a good project, I’ve seen them budge when hammered and make small concessions.

But, for these good religious people to truly reach for faith in something beyond their own comprehension and current abilities?

That, like nuclear fusion, remains out of reach (at least for this man) and impossible.

So what is my positive vision for love?

I asked God to make the impossible possible, and when I asked, I was seeking after that greater love—the fusion love of faith.  And, I’m not sure I’ve arrived at an answer yet.  I have many questions.

However, what I do know is that I have been changed over the past few years and now things that were impossible are closer to reality for me.  I have lived to be an answer to prayer even while my prayers seem to have gone unanswered.  I’m determined to help others see their own visions of a greater life become their reality.

 
The picture above is my family.  Not a family caused by biology or religious culture either, but one formed of obedience to conscience and love.  Do you share my vision for a transcendent love?